Eating Flesh Respectfully

Photo by Big grey Mare

“I’ve learned to have a relationship with an animal that is not a pet. This usually only happens when you live on a farm. Look at the chicks and the lambs, they are adorable… yet you have a different purpose for them in mind. You must acknowledge their attractiveness and care for them as tenderly as you would for any living creature.” –Deborah Krasner, “Good Meat : The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat”

“Don’t be afraid of your food”. Chef Chris Consentino knows a thing or two about scary food. He has mastered the art of turning lamb brain or pig feet into a desirable dish for the average consumer. And he does so with brio in his acclaimed restaurant Incanto in San Francisco. Kitchen adventurer as he may be, Chris Consentino is also on a mission: converting meat-eaters to offal, this “fifth-quarter” of the animal that is usually ignored and too often wasted.

For there can be no conversation about sustainable meat without a conversation about eating innards, tails and ends.

“If you’re causing an animal’s sacrifice for your appetite, you owe to it to eat all of it, it is a matter of respect”, stressed Deborah Krasner, author of “Good Meat : The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat”, in a conversation about humane and sustainable meat eating hosted this week at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

Eco-conscious chef Chris Consentino

The astonishing reality of the beef market, for instance, is that cuts of beef routinely bought by consumers for grilling or roasting (tenderloin, ribs, etc.) represent only 70 pounds out of an average 600/700-pound carcass. Everything else goes into processed meat for hamburgers and hot-dogs, except for infected organs (“condemned offal”).

“The great thing about offal, those filters and other vital elements of the living organism, is that they let you know right away if the animal led a healthy life and was slaughtered humanely. There’s no cheating there,” added Marissa Guggiana, president of the processing facility Sonoma Direct Sustainable Meats and author of Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers.

Offal presents another great advantage: it’s awfully cheap.

“Anyone who insists on eating meat can absolutely source pasture-raised meat at an affordable price. It only takes a little bit of willingness and effort to, say, share a cow or a pig from a local farm with other households and learn how to cook and enjoy all of it, including the unfamiliar cuts (offal and low-grade cuts)–these automatically bring down the average price of the pound of meat,” says Deborah Krasner.

Conscientious, price-conscious, meat-eaters actually seem to be on the rise. Mac Magruder of the sustainable Magruder Ranch stated that demand for offal and cheap cuts (like pigs feet and lamb shank) has been sky-rocketing on farmers’ market recently. Simultaneously, pasture-raised meat is becoming easier to find.

“Since 1960, about 60 percent of ranchers have disappeared,” said Mac Magruder. “Until now, it has been the case that young generations would refuse to take over the family business and would seek employment in the city. But I have never been so optimistic about the future of family ranches as I am now: our industry is in complete transition and I see a new generation coming on board who brings a lot of ideas and energy to sustainable animal farming.”

At the same time, “CAFO [industrial animal farms] are not a sustainable industry for they’re entirely dependent on the cheap price of corn and oil. We all know these days are coming to an end,” he added.

He also made a couple of very interesting points when he underlined that the shift back to local pasture-raised meat will only be successful if 1/ the local meat supply chain is restored (slaughter-houses, processing plants, distribution) 2/ consumers eat less meat.

“For a grass rancher to make a living, he needs to raise animals that can be harvested in 18-24 months, which means they have smaller frames than animals bred for the feedlot,” he said. “These 1,200 pound corn-fed steers… you don’t need that much meat!” he exclaimed.

Indeed. In fact, I would even argue we don’t need any meat at all. Especially not the meat produced by an industry that is wreaking havoc on our health and on the environment. “Choosing meat that promotes individual and environmental health,” in the words of blogger Traca Savadogo, occurs to me as a bit of an oxymoron.

Photo by FotoosVanRobin

For one, meat production is the least efficient way to provide food. It requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than plants per calorie output, according to a landmark Cornell ecologist’s analysis. And it consumes up to 100 times (or more, depending on the studies) more water than plants per pound produced. Finally, according to a 2006 United Nations report, “the livestock sector is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

With regard to health, many scientific studies have demonstrated that daily meat consumption is linked to the main issues that plague our Western society (cancer, diabetes, heart diseases, strokes, etc.). Not only is it acid forming in the body, but it taxes the digestive system. The latter is poorly designed to eliminate meat in a timely fashion. Putrefaction in the colon, especially, has been shown to be linked to severe illnesses.

I don’t deny the unique sensory experience that comes with the enjoyment of an exquisite piece of meat. I also find there are many layers to deciding whether to eat meat, what meat to eat and how often. Health, environmental, social and spiritual considerations all come to mind. They leave a lot of us confused. In some cases, we collapse them into a dogmatic approach that keeps us separate from what actually works best for us. I invite you to take a look here at the map of the land I’ve drawn while searching for my own path.

Eventually, a dear friend of mine helped me cut through the chase. “One should only eat the meat one would be willing to kill for”, he likes to say. That reality check has given me a newfound respect for hunters who pack deer or elk in their freezer for the year. On my end, however, I find that, given the abundance of plant-based food available, abstaining from meat is the surest way to keep my integrity intact.

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